No Get Out of Jail Free Cards Here

I’m just a plainspoken Colorado criminal defense lawyer, but the way I see it…

The other day I went with a colleague who specializes in representing the accused at the first stage of court: the arraignment. What they all have in common, is that they are all already in jail. No money to bond, none for a lawyer. For my colleague, it’s the only stage he represents them: unless rearrested for something else, he never sees them again.

He’s very efficient at what he does. But he’s been doing it for a long, long time. This is how it goes at the jail:

We are shuttled into cages: elevators that look like jail cells, with bars and guards to prevent our escape. The attorney who holds the contract for the jail arraignments is bantering with the guards to beat the band, one clever quip tumbling out after another. Does he always engage them like this, or is it for my benefit?

We spill out of the cage into a bigger cage. The prisoners are here, lined against the walls. The attorneys divvy them up, then lead them one at a time to bare wood tables (are they bolted to the floor? I don’t remember). The attorneys do some business with a folded towel, wiping off the tables, purging them of germs left by the previous men and women who sat here bartering for their freedom. Nobody wants to catch a cold. Or whatever.

The prisoner at our table starts to say something. The attorney shuts him up. Wait, the attorney says, I done this a million times, there’s stuff I gotta say, it’ll go easier that way. Then he gives the spiel he’s given 10,000 times before. He’s smooth, he’s fast, he’s clever, don’t interrupt, that’s why they pay him the big bucks. He even says it: “That’s why they pay me the big bucks.” By now he’s memorized it all by heart – 9900 times ago he’d memorized it all by heart – and by now there’s no heart left in it. It’s mill work.

The attorney is advising the prisoner that he might plead guilty, get some credit for time served, even as the guy is saying there’s no way he could have done what they say he did. They say he called his ex-wife, using his girlfriend as an intermediary to make the call and patch him in on a conference call, violating a restraining order. But I couldn’t a done that, he says: I was in jail, I didn’t make no call, they don’t allow no conference calls. If I plead guilty, won’t that affect my probation? I just got outta jail; might as well go right back.

The attorney finally looks at the police report. It never says the prisoner talked with the wife, or said anything at all. It says the wife was called by the girlfriend, who wanted to know how to get in touch with the prisoner. It says the wife “suspected” the prisoner was in on the call. The whole charge is based on this suspicion. It’s bogus.

Still the attorney tells the prisoner he might do better to plead and take his chances with the sentencing. If he pleads not guilty he won’t be able to make bail and he’ll stay in jail through his trial for a crime he didn’t commit. If he pleads guilty he might actually do less time for the crime he didn’t commit. But there’s the probation thing.

It’s a slow day. The attorney actually has the time to call the probation officer, see what effect a guilty plea will have. Turns out it won’t be so good.

The attorney pleads the prisoner not guilty. He makes a fine and effective argument that the police report doesn’t even detail a crime; the accused doesn’t even factor in except for the wife’s belief that he must have been lurking in the background of the phone call.

The judge is clearly impressed, but not so impressed that he reduces bail so the prisoner might fight this charge from somewhere other than a cell.

It’s an agreeable result: the prisoner doesn’t plead guilty to a crime he didn’t commit. He thanks the attorney. He is led in his manacles back to the jail.

The wheels of justice grind slowly.

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2 Responses to No Get Out of Jail Free Cards Here

  1. Gerry Unger 2 July 2014 at 9:07 pm #

    What you describe is hardly unique. Something counsel and prosecutors forget- the truth never walked into a courthouse. The playing field does not even approach an imagined level point. Do not for one minute think the court system is concerned with what’s right. Courts are only concerned with procedure. It’s not justice, it’s just us.
    I will never forget an AUSA of Pittsburg stating “evidence of innocence is of no consequence.”

    • Philip Rosmarin 3 July 2014 at 12:12 am #

      Well, I only hope that particular assistant United States attorney is himself no longer of consequence.

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